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Runaways: Victims At Home and On the Streets


Every day across the country children are leaving home for
a future of danger and uncertainty on the streets. For
most, the time away from home is short and mostly
uneventful. For others, a life on the streets turns tragic
when they realize that what once seemed like a solution
soon becomes another situation from which they must escape.
If the problem of teenage runaways is to be understood and
possibly prevented, parents need to know what makes teens
run away, some of the consequences of running away, and
what help is available for teenagers who choose to run away
from home. For parents, the reasons why a teenager needs to
run away are very important. Although all the possible
reasons for running away are too numerous to name here,
there are some characteristic reasons that cause a teen to
runaway. In her book, Anyplace But Here: Young, Alone, and
Homeless: What to Do, Ellen Switzer (1992) gives four
categories of reasons for a teen's need to run away:
physical abuse, sexual abuse, family problems, alcoholism,
and other substance abuse.
The rates of child abuse increase as children become older.
Adolescents have the highest rates for physical, emotional,
and sexual abuse. Among adolescents, males and females have
comparable rates of physical and emotional abuse, but
females have four times the risk of sexual abuse than males
(Papalia & Olds 1993). In a study of maltreated teens who
ran away from home, it was found that females accounted for
87.3% of the sexually abused runaways. They also comprised
83.9% of the group that was both physically and sexually
abused (Kurtz, Kurtz, & Jarvis 1991). The results of a
study at a runaway shelter in central Florida showed that
biological fathers were most often responsible for physical
abuse, however stepfathers were most often responsible for
sexual abuse (Warren, Gary, & Moorhead 1994). The outcome
of both physical and sexual abuse appears to have a
cumulative effect on children. Teens who are abused both
physically and sexually tend to have more personal, family,
and school problems than those who only suffer from one
form of abuse (physical or sexual), or who were not abused.
The runaways who experienced both forms of abuse were the
most likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, experience
depression, contemplate or attempt suicide, need
hospitalization for mental reasons, and be involved in
prostitution. The physically and sexually abused teens
repeatedly ran away and stayed away from home longer than
nonabused teens. Parents of the abused teens were more
likely to know about the child running away and often did
not want the child returned to the home (Kurtz, Kurtz, &
Jarvis 1991).
Along with the threat of physical and sexual abuse, many
runaways have to contend with parental abuse of alcohol or
other substances. In a study of 68 adolescents at a
juvenile detention center in Missouri, researchers found
that 43% of the group with alcoholic families were in the
highest category of child abuse compared to 6% of those
from a nonalcoholic family. The study also revealed that
70% of the adolescents in the alcoholic group scored
positive on an addiction scale compared to 46% of the
nonalcoholic group (McGaha & Leoni 1995).
Not all children run away from home because of physical or
sexual abuse; most children simply run away from parents
who neglect them. A parent who is suffering from alcohol or
substance abuse will not be able to give a child the
emotional or physical support they need. By running away
from home, neglected children are attempting to find what
is missing from their lives - love and support. When teens
decide to run away from home they may be leaving a life of
abuse and neglect only to replace it with one of
exploitation and victimization. The longer they stay away,
the more likely they will become involved with groups of
people who engage in criminal behavior to support
themselves (Simmons & Whitlock 1991). After two weeks on
the street 75% of runaways will have become involved in
some kind of activity that exploits children: pornography,
prostitution, drugs, or crime (Forst & Blomquist 1991).
Fortunately, most runaways do not become long term
runaways. Half return home before the end of the first
evening and a large majority return after a few days. This
time period appears to be an important factor in the amount
of exploitation of a runaway. When the URSA Institute and
the RTI (Research Triangle Institute) conducted a study of
362 runaways, they found that only 4 (1.1%) had engaged in
prostitution and none reported being a victim of child
pornography. Most of these runaways had returned home after
a few days and probably did not stay away long enough to
resort to prostitution or pornography as a means of
survival (Forst & Blomquist 1991). Besides the threat of
violence and exploitation, runaways are susceptible to many
health problems while living on the streets. Runaways are
more likely to need medical treatment for pelvic
inflammatory disease (PID), hepatitis, respiratory problems
(asthma and pneumonia), scabies, and trauma (Forst &
Blomquist 1991). Most runaways prefer to stay on the street
or with friends rather than go to a shelter. This makes
studying the group very difficult since there is no clear
cut definition of runaways and homeless adolescents.
Homeless youths may not be runaways, but may have been
forced out of their homes (a group that could be called
"throwaways") by parents who no longer want to care for
them. Regardless, they live mostly on the streets and have
essential health needs similar to the remainder of the
homeless population (Council on Scientific Affairs 1989).
For the runaways who become involved in prostitution and
child pornography, the danger of contracting AIDS is
certainly an increasing risk. In a study of 206 male and
female runaways from New York City, it was found that
runaways engaged in more unprotected sexual activity and
had greater numbers of partners compared to other
adolescents (Rotheram-Borus et al. 1992). Runaways from
other metropolitan areas are also at risk for AIDS. A study
of Cleveland runaways showed increased risk of AIDS due to
unprotected sex and multiple sex partners, although not as
high as the New York group. The Cleveland group also had a
greater knowledge of AIDS prevention, but the Cleveland
group was comprised of short term runaways whereas the New
York group was primarily composed of long term runaways and
homeless adolescents (Zimet et al. 1995). The health
problems of runaway teens is a complex issue since the
total number of teens on the streets in need of medical
care is unknown. Many teens do not trust health care
providers and delay seeking treatment because they believe
money is needed prior to receiving medical care. When they
finally do obtain treatment, they often refuse any follow
up care. Although some medical workers are hesitant to
provide care to juveniles without a parent's consent, most
states allow emancipated minors to obtain health care
without parental consent. An emancipated minor is one who
is living apart from their parents (with or without their
consent) and is not receiving parental financial support
(as the majority of runaways do) (Council of Scientific
Affairs 1989). Although medical attention is often needed
by runaway youths, other services are just as important for
the well being of runaways. According to United States
Government estimates, 500,00 to 1.5 million adolescents
runaway or are forced out of their homes every year. There
are an estimated 200,00 homeless adolescents living on the
streets, and approximately 66% seek services at shelters.
The runaways range from less than 11 years of age to over
18; half are 15 or 16 years old (Administration on
Children, Youth, and Families 1994). Since the passage of
the Runaway Youth Act by Congress and President Ford in
September 1974, the Department of Health and Human Services
creates grants and offers assistance to cities and
organizations for the development of runaway youth
facilities that are not part of the law enforcement or
juvenile justice system (Forst & Blomquist 1991). In
addition to the funds which directly support temporary
shelters for runaway and homeless youth, approximately 10%
of the funds are used to fund the national toll-free
hotline, training and technical assistance, research on
teenage prostitution and chronic runaways, and methods to
improve outreach, prevention, and family reunification
(Administration on Children, Youth, and, Families 1995).
Other services that are part of the Department of Health
and Human Services: National Runaway Switchboard Hotline -
The National Runaway Switchboard is a confidential
telephone information, referral, and counseling service for
runaway and homeless youth and their families. The hotline
has helped approximately 300,000 youth and families during
the past five years. Over 10,000 calls are received monthly
on the toll-free phone number: 1-800-621-4000. National
Clearinghouse on Runaway and Homeless Youth - The National
Clearinghouse on Runaway and Homeless Youth (NCRHY) serves
as a central information resource on runaway and homeless
youth issues for youth service providers, policy makers,
and the general public. The Clearinghouse can be reached at
(301) 608-8098. Drug Abuse Prevention Program - Since 1988,
the Drug Abuse Prevention Program assists communities in
addressing drug abuse among youth by providing services
designed toward the prevention, early intervention, and
reduction of drug dependency. Funds are used to provide
individual, family, group, and peer counseling. The program
also provides community education and outreach activities,
training to service providers, and research. Transitional
Living Program for Homeless Youth - Since 1988, the
Transitional Living Program for Homeless Youth has provided
support for projects that promote the transition of
homeless youth, age 16 to 21, to self-sufficient living and
prevent their long-term dependence on social services.
Services include shelter, education, job training, health
care, and other assistance. Although most runaways leave
home because of relatively minor family problems (compared
to abusive situations) and return after a few days, this
should not eclipse the dilemma of the children who leave an
abusive home only to be victimized again once on the
streets. Runaway children are some of the most exploited
members of society. The danger of living on the street is a
poor choice for a child in an abusive situation to have to
make, but thousands choose the street every year. The irony
of runaways is how they risk being victims of prostitution,
pornography, crime, drugs, and AIDS in an attempt to escape
a life of abuse.
References Administration on Children, Youth, and Families.
(1995). Fact Sheet: Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs.
on Scientific Affairs. (1989) Health Care Needs of Homeless
and Runaway Youths. Journal of the American Medical
Association, 262, 1358-1361. Forst, M. L., & Blomquist M.E.
(1991). Missing Children. New York: Lexington Books. Kurtz,
D. P., Kurtz, G. L., & Jarvis, S. V. (1991). Problems of
Maltreated Runaway Youth. Adolescence, 26, 543-555.
McGaha, J. E., & Leoni, E. L. (1995). Family Violence,
Abuse, and Related Family Issues of Incarcerated
Delinquents Compared to Those With Nonalcoholic Parents.
Adolescence, 30, 473-482. Papalia, D. E., & Olds, S. W.
(1993). A Child's World: Infancy Through Adolescence. New
 York: McGraw-Hill. Rotheram-Borus, M. J., Meyer-Bahlburg,
H. F., Koopman, C., Rosario, M., Exner, T. M., Henderson,
M. A., Matthieu, B. S., & Gruen, M. A. (1992). Lifetime
Sexual Behaviors Among Runaway Males and Females. The
Journal of Sex Research, 29, 15-28. Simons, R. L., &
Whitbeck, L. B. (1994, June) "Running Away During
Adolescence as a Precursor to Adult Homelessness." Social
Service Review, pp. 26-247. Switzer, E. (1992). Anyplace
But Here - Young, Alone, and Homeless; What to Do. New
York: Atheneum. Warren, J. K., Gary, F., & Moorhead, J.,
(1994). Self-Reported Experiences of Physical and Sexual
Abuse Among Runaway Youths. Perspectives in Psychiatric
Care, 30 (1), 23-28. Zimet, G. D., Sobo, E. J., Zimmerman,
T., Jackson, J., Mortimer, J., Yanda, C. P., & Lazebnik,
 R. (1995). Sexual Behavior, Drug Use, and Aids Knowledge
Among Midwestern Runaways. Youth & Society, 26, 450-461.
2 Runaways 


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